Faaez Samadi
Jun 30, 2016

The rising stock of public affairs amid APAC's diverse political lanscape

With all the different regimes and governments to deal with across Asia-Pacific, public affairs specialists are increasingly in demand, both agency and client-side, as the region continues be a goldmine for brands.

Rapid digitisation is changing the public affairs space. Here Indian PM Modi meets Facebook's Zuckerberg
Rapid digitisation is changing the public affairs space. Here Indian PM Modi meets Facebook's Zuckerberg

When brands talk about being successful in Asia-Pacific, some version of the same theme emerges: be in tune with the cultures, societies and nuances of the countries that make up the region. You can’t approach Thailand the same way you do Cambodia, and so on.

Getting this right has always been a huge challenge, which is why public affairs has always been part of the PR and communications package in the region.

However, it seems that things are only getting tougher, which is why public affairs, not always foremost at the minds of communicators, has seen its stock rise so significantly in recent times.

Many APAC countries are developing into major global players at a time of unbridled social and political change in the region.

From a new liberal democracy in Myanmar after years of dictatorial rule, to Thailand’s military junta; a libertarian Indian prime minister to a volatile new Filipino president; an increasingly interventionist China to five Australian prime ministers in five years.

The map is messy, to say the least, perhaps messier than ever. Brands need people who can navigate it, who have their fingers on many pulses and the right connections to get their clients heard by policymakers. Why is why more and more PR agencies in APAC are investing in public affairs.

Room enough for all

“Many traditional PR firms already had some small public affairs function, but even those that had previously ignored this demand are appointing some of their more politically-minded staffers to begin a public affairs practice,” says Adam Welsh, Singapore managing director of APCO Worldwide.

The sheer scope of business potential in Asia-Pacific, coupled with the myriad governments and regimes that need to be approached, has seen many PR firms focus more on public affairs work.

Moreover, the market is such that several specialist public affairs agencies have opened over the past few years in the likes of Singapore, Hong Kong, Indonesia, India, China and Australia, on the basis that there is plenty of work to go around advising brands on regulations and policies.

“Our experience with both MNCs and big Indian transnational corporations tells us that public affairs has begun to realise its weight in the policy space,” Manash K Neog, director of public affairs at Chase India, tells PRWeek Asia.

“Managing relationships effectively can have a huge impact on a company’s market access, ability to engage in M&A and broader reputation,” Neog explains, which is why specialist agencies with strong ties and local knowledge are thriving in the public affairs space.

However, because public affairs is now a bigger part of the overall comms picture in Asia-Pacific, larger agencies are also getting their share of the spoils, says Cindy Tian, regional vice president of public affairs at Edelman China.

“Government and public affairs work is no longer isolated within a company, and campaigns require new capabilities in the evolving communications environment. Not all of the specialist agencies have the resources to invest in these,” she says.

It’s not just the agencies either; observers say plenty of businesses are beefing up their in-house public affairs capabilities to deal with the increasing demand on their time of negotiating and lobbying key policymakers in Asia-Pacific.

Getting access, both ways

The key for brands is getting in front of those who have influence over their operations in a given market. Whether an agency is large or small, this is the fundamental tenet of their offering, and its success depends as much on client information as it does government relations.

“The first rule is to know your clients well and ensure they are true to their brands,” explains Jacquelynne Willcox, executive vice president of Powell Tate. “Our value is in know the regulatory, policy and political environment the company operates in, and calling out what is on the horizon.

“The real value is in providing a strategy to engage and be part of shaping that future.”

The key to it, says Neog, is combining strong messaging with clear insights into how a brand will engage in a given market, and allowing authorities to see the benefits.

“Brands are restructuring their public affairs strategies in Asia into approaches that provide policymakers with better insight and leeway for oversight, evaluation and subsequently better decisions.”

Another important development is that public affairs in APAC has become a two-way street, with governments now actively engaging consumers and businesses far more than ever before.

Allison Lim, Burson-Marsteller regional managing director, Southeast Asia & public affairs and government communications, says: “Governments throughout the region recognise that they are involved in a permanent campaign to build support for public sector initiatives and government policies.

“They want to be able to use the same tools and technologies employed by leading global companies.”

However, in the region’s biggest economy, things seem to be getting tougher in the public affairs space. China may have become more regulated and transparent in some ways, but brands, particularly foreign companies, are finding it harder to engage stakeholders.

Guan Xi, the magic word for government affairs in the 1980s and 90s, and even the first few years of the 2000s, is no longer magical,” explains Tian at Edelman.

“Engagement with policymakers must align business interests with China’s development agenda. For a business in China, public affairs is not a function, but a lifeline, as the government plays a dominant role in the market and influences every step of a business.”

Technology and democratisation

By far the biggest change for public affairs in APAC today is the rapid digitisation of several maturing countries, allowing greater access to information and giving citizens a voice where previously they did not have one.

The drivers for this are a growing population of wealthier, better-educated and more engaged APAC consumers. As such, the demands on public affairs execs to connect brands to government, and vice versa, in a digitally relevant way is more pronounced than ever.

“Asia and its public affairs professionals stand at the threshold of a new political and economic experience as demonstrated by its new and rapidly growing urban centres, and an increasingly tech-savvy, educated and young demography,” says Neog.

But with this technological revolution comes challenges, for both governments and brands in APAC.

Willcox says: “Some brands are unwisely using it as their main channel of engagement and have become too transactional in their approach to technology as a tool of public affairs,” she warns.

Furthermore, increased digital access means room for millions more comments regarding a brand or governments plans, not all of which are savoury.

Lim explains: “While social platforms can empower individuals, they do not necessarily create democratic access to information online. They also breed clusters of extremism, ignorance and abuse.”

Public affairs professionals have to guide their clients through this often vitriolic noise to promote their ideas to policymakers, who are regularly swayed by the digital court of public opinion.

As with other areas of PR work, timing a strategy is key, as in engaging agencies before any issues arise.

“Public affairs advisers should be used at the beginning of the transaction,’ Willcox says. “Too often we get called in when the deal id facing regulatory or other challenges that could have been foreseen and better managed with a good public affairs strategy.”

Whatever the pitfalls and developments, it is clear that public affairs in Asia-Pacific is in a period of rapid transition with no time to stand still.

With more free trade agreements being implemented, not to mention the likes of the Trans-Pacific Partnership on the horizon, the picture does not look to be getting clearer anytime soon.

As Neog aptly puts it: “This is a rather interesting time for public affairs, as the theatre of engagement is expanding very fast.”

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